There are a lot of good quality IP cameras out there (as well as a lot of el cheapo not-so-good quality ones) that work well.
But if you don’t mind a larger physical footprint and a lack of portability – admittedly two important reasons about why people buy small portable IP cameras – using old computers and equipment that you might have lying around or may be able to acquire for next to nothing can be a great option. And you can maybe do some things with an old computer that you may not be able to do with an IP camera.
This blog post is going to be about repurposing older computer equipment for setting up a webcam system, with emphasis on the hardware and software aspect of the computer. I’m going to try to go into as much general detail as possible but for some technical aspects and specifics I’m going to assume that you are at least a bit familiar with updating software and finding drivers, tweaking WiFi security, installing hardware, and setting up a website. If not then this post may not be for you.
On to the post… Years ago I wanted to set up a weather webcam for Jefferson County, NY (check out this link for the collaborative wiki I work on for everything Jefferson County, NY-related, mostly historical).
Originally I used a cheap, low resolution webcam running on my main home office computer, sharing bandwidth with my dial-up connection, running Webcam32 from SurveyorCorp (now defunct). Webcam32 could be configured to automatically dial at an interval, FTP a photo and then log off. It also accepted multiple startup profiles so that I could run the program with one profile that would have it upload at intervals while I was online, and then I could restart it with another profile that would do the auto-dial and auto-hangup too, all by itself when I was away from the computer and not using it.
It worked fine, but it was a bit awkward at times, to say the least.
Eventually we used a MiFi and a series of routers that I hacked with DD-WRT to overcome the MiFi’s limitations on devices and range. And then, after many years, eventually we were able to get Time Warner Cable Internet (and there’s a story in its own right – maybe for another day).
At that time I was no longer happy running the webcam on my main computer, both by the annoyance of it always having to be running in the background as well as the fact that I wanted to move the camera to a new place.
As a person who has worked on computers for years I, like so many others, have accumulated a fair amount of older computers and equipment. And every few years I have to do a ‘cleaning’ – i.e. recycling and giving away when possible.
For several years I had used some of these spare computers and equipment as temporary webcam computers for home-monitoring when we went on vacations. So I decided to start reconfiguring a couple as my permanent webcam computers, as I already had them mostly ready to go.
It worked well, and after some time I have decided to write a bit of a blog post about the process.
There’s a few factors that you have to consider when using an old computer in place of a new IP camera or other system – and this posting is mostly going to refer to Windows systems, not Macs nor LINUX systems – WiFi security (if you are using WiFi), the ability to stream (if you are streaming), and whether the camera is just plain going to handle serving up your camera resolution and what you want to do with the webcam and computer. I’ll get to this all further along in the blog. And of course, one of the most important things is to make sure the computer and all attached components are going to run reliably and autonomously for long periods of time.
Whether you have a computer sitting around, have been given an older computer, have picked one up for cheap from somewhere like Craigslist, eBay, your local thrift store, garage sale, a computer shop, etc (you can even get used computers on Amazon as well as many other sites like Tigerdirect) – open the computer’s side access panel and do a thorough vacuuming and dusting of the inside (and if it came from someone/somewhere else and/or have issues with dust or pollen or allergies you may want to wear a filter mask even). A careful but thorough vacuuming and dusting of course. If it is heavily clogged with dust vacuum it first, than use a clean toothbrush or other small light brush to brush out any clogs that you can reach, if you are careful you can take fans out and clean their blades and anything under them, unplug components, etc. But don’t do this if you are not familiar with computers or careful.
You can also try this – run the vacuum, positioning the nozzle near things that are heavily clogged and on the opposite end (if possible) of the clogged dirty object squirt compressed air through it or into it, or use an air pump if you have one. Carefully, always. Hopefully this will unclog any dust or dirt bunches and the vacuum will suck out the offending grunge instead of the compressed air pushing it further in. Again, you have to be careful with this method – it’s best to use a high performance vacuum like the Dyson series and use compressed air sparingly. Brush, vacuum, and blow and vacuum and carefully, and always vacuum and clean and brush things out and vacuum again first before using any compressed air.
While you have it apart check to make sure that the computer has adequate fans, some older computers didn’t have that many as they didn’t need them under normal circumstances. But long-term 365/24 use, especially in hot conditions, may mean an older computer may need more fans. Keep this in mind as you test the computer in later stages too, if it’s getting too warm inside you may need to add more fans.
Once you have it as clean as possible put the access panel back on and boot it up. At this point you might want to enter BIOS (ESCAPE, F2, etc) and make note of the settings, then reset the BIOS to default, and then change the power options so that the computer will automatically boot up after a power failure (if it has that option).
Resetting the BIOS is a good idea to do to make sure that everything is going to run as smoothly as possible and try to eliminate any possibility of any corruption of the BIOS.
Making sure it will boot after a power failure means it is going to take care of itself if the power goes out – not only do you not need to worry about booting it back up manually but if you are using it as a security webcam or just another way to keep an eye on things and/or as a public webcam service – it’s always going to be running. The only thing to be concerned about is if the power is fluctuating, going on and off quickly, or is under a brown-out condition. If any of these are a concern don’t set it to power back up by itself, or make sure it is unplugged if any of these things happen. Normally the computer should survive these things as long as they are not excessive, but it really should be unplugged if power is going out and in until power has stabilized and of course computers really should be unplugged during lightning storms. Of course, if it’s a really old computer and it and it’s components hold little value to you or you have others to replace it you can discount unplugging it for any reason.
If possible in the BIOS I also turn off checking for keyboard and mouse, as I may eventually unplug both peripherals since they are not needed for a properly functioning webcam computer when it’s all set up.
Once the computer has booted up what I like to do is thorough wipe the hard drive and install Windows brand new with a Microsoft install disc to get rid of any garbage, make sure nothing extraneous gets installed and everything is pristine. Many times minimal settings and software will be all you need for this computer, and helps to run it as fast as possible, especially on limited older computers. You don’t have to do this of course, but it is going to wipe out any garbage and many other problems that may slow it down. You can use the Windows disc to format the drive.
I’m going o assume that you either have or can acquire a Windows version that is going to run on whatever particular computer you have. Most computers originally had some sort of label on them that shows the Windows version that was originally on it, or you can look up the specs on the Internet. That isn’t necessarily the highest version of Windows it can run, but it will give you a ballpark, along with looking at the technical specs for the computer in general (again – looking up the model number on the Internet is going to give you plenty of spec sites for it).
You might also be able to increase your computer’s processing ability slightly (if you need as fast a computer as possible for streaming for example, or just because it’s so old it takes forever to do anything) by making sure all unnecessary software is shut down, nothing is running that doesn’t need to be. Use MSCONFIG to find what is starting up and disable anything unnecessary. You can sometimes gain a little performance by disabling all unnecessary Windows services that are running automatically (Services are usually found under Administrative Tools – don’t mess with them unless you know what you are doing though. Check out sites like Black Viper’s for some info).
If the computer is still fairly slow, but you don’t need to stream then perhaps the computer is still going to be fine for your purposes, but you won’t know until you give it a try for its new purpose. If it does seem way too slow for your purposes you might want to try a lower version of Windows.
Once the computer and Windows is up and running and you have it optimized with no unneeded software and no unnecessary services running you’ll want to try to update any drivers that need to be updated. If it’s an old version of Windows with older hardware this may be hard to do, and mostly what you are concerned about here are things that affect the system running the webcam. It’s always good to update all drivers but you can also prioritize if you are having trouble finding drivers.
Sometimes you may have to look on European versions of a manufacturer’s website to find older drivers or use a website like DriverGuide.com, or even the WayBack Machine for archived copies of old drivers.
And make sure you have drivers as new as possible for your webcam before you plug the webcam in. It’s best to install drivers for devices like webcams and external WiFi cards and adapters BEFORE plugging them in to avoid problems. On older systems Windows may or may not be able to find the correct driver, or any one at all, on newer Windows versions it is not such a big deal but I always recommend downloading the newest drivers and installed them manually.
So now you need to consider the connection to your network/the Internet.
If you have a network card installed and network cable that will reach where the webcam computer is going to be permanently stationed then you’re pretty much all set (as long as you have a working updated driver for your card). Just make sure everything works, you can browse a website to make sure (Firefox and Opera both work on older computers, Google Chrome may not).
But if the webcam computer is going to be set up in a remote area or some place without a wired connection (or if you just don’t want to go to the trouble of running a network cable) you will need a WiFi adapter of some sort – a USB WiFi adapter, a WiFi card, etc. If you are running Windows 7 or above it will be just a matter of finding the correct drivers (if they didn’t automatically get installed) and connecting to your router.
But unfortunately if you are running anything older than Windows XP you are going to be out of luck for any modern sort of WiFi security. You’ll need to use a network card and cable and connect it directly to a router.
Even with Windows XP you might run into problems with WPA/WPA2 – issues with Windows itself or the device’s driver, or both. And believe me – you don’t want to “dumb down” your WiFi to use old style WEP either. WEP is insecure and out of date by modern standards – don’t use it.
The first iteration of Windows XP ‘out of the box’ did not support WPA/WPA2 so make sure that if you are using a Windows XP computer you either have Server Pack 3 (SP3) or update KB 893357 installed – I’ll get to that in a bit. You should be able to tell whether you have SP3 (Service Pack 3) installed by going to Control Panel and then System – under where it says Windows XP it will tell you whether you have SP3 installed, though you could possible just have the KB893357 update installed and not SP3 – which is going to give you WPA/WPA2 also. Or you can just try connecting the computer to your WiFi (as long as your WiFi device’s drivers are also updated and capable of WPA/WPA2 – see next paragraph).
You’ll also need to make sure that the drivers for whatever wireless adapter or card you are using supports WPA/WPA2. Make sure that you have the newest versions you can find for your OS (though sometimes you may have to try drivers made for other versions of Windows) – with older hardware these drivers may be many years old. And now is where it can get tricky. You need to have device drives that support WPA/WPA2 and sometimes the last drivers for a particular device did not support WPA/WPA2. If you’re lucky the manufacturer’s drivers do support it, but sometimes you may have to do a little digging on various forums or technical specs to find out who actually manufactured that particular devices’s main chipset(s), download the drivers for that instead and replacing the other driver(s) from the company that made the overall device.
Sometimes even making sure you have SP3 installed and drivers that support WPA/WPA2 doesn’t work. You can try uninstalling SP3 and installing the KB 893357 update instead – or vice versa (if Microsoft doesn’t seem to have KB 893357 available you can download it off another site like this one. Always scan everything with a virus scanner before install). Yes, there may be some ‘experimenting’ (i.e. hair tearing, tears, vulgarities, inevitable urge to throw computers and equipment against a wall, etc) to get all of this to work together. You may find that inevitably certain wireless hardware just isn’t going to work with WPA/WPA2 and you’ll need to root around in your spare parts, buy something off Craigslist, etc to find something else that will work instead. Of course, you have to make sure that if you buy any newer hardware it is going to have drivers that will support whatever older OS you are running.
If you are using something newer than Windows XP you won’t need to do any of the Windows-related messing about, but you still will need to make sure your wireless hardware’s drivers support WPA/WPA2.
Once you have the capability to connect to your router using WPA/WPA2 do a little security check – try to use more secure and modern WPA2 rather than WPA (if your router is still using WPA consider switching to WPA2), make sure you are using a non-default SSID, and lastly use a nice long password (you can even use a password generator like this one); twenty characters if possible to help prevent hacking by stuff like Aircrack Suite. And don’t use TKIP encryption nor a combo of it, instead using the more secure AES if your router(s) and hardware support it.
Browse a few webpages a little to make sure everything works reliably, and watch your signal strength in whatever program you needed to install for connecting to your router or in the stock Windows WiFi panel. If you are very near your router at this point and losing a lot of signal strength or seeing it fluctuate a lot you might try experimenting with different locations and positions for situating the wireless adapter and/or computer. Some older WiFi adapters were positively terrible at keeping a good signal, and you might want to consider experimenting with other devices if the one you are using is not keeping a very good signal (some fluctuation is normal).
If you are running the computer away from where you will have it set up permanently you may now want to shut down the computer and move it to its permanent home. You may find that this negatively or positively affects your signal WiFi strength, of course.
If you are getting a very low signal and have a USB adapter you can buy longer USB extension cables and attempt to get the device as high as possible and as far from obstructions as you can, as well as try re-orienting the WiFi adapter in various directions along all three axis. For adapter cards mounted in your computer your only options are to move the computer itself at slightly different angles to try for better signal strength, and maybe replacing the antenna(s) with better ones – sometimes this can make a lot of difference, sometimes not. If you have an adapter card and your antenna(s) are replaceable you can likely find an extension cable for your antennas also. You’ll need to identify the plug format for your card, though likely it is something like a standard RP-SMA.
If nothing works you may have to try a different USB adapter, or a better router or re-position the router you are connecting to.
But if you are trying to cover a longer distance, or go through heavy obstructions, or both – you may either need to reconsider the site or use something stronger like a repeater or hackable router and DD-WRT. With a repeater or a router hacked to become a repeater you can increase your range, sometimes dramatically. Or you can use a hacked router or a router that supports Client Mode as a high-powered WiFi adapter, running in Client Mode, connected directly to the computer and positioned where ever you wish it to be via a network cable between the computer and the router – which gives you a lot of options for placement. In this mode the router at the webcam computer connects to your existing router via WiFi – this router in Client Mode at the webcam computer acting as if it were the computer’s WiFi adapter in a way. You can cover long distances with this set up and this method works extremely well for long distances – similar to using a repeater but without the extra hardware in between. For even longer distances directional antennas or home-made directional antennas or hacks can be made to the client router (the one situated at the computer) and/or the Internet-connected router.
Using a router in Client Mode gives you lots of options, and range; and you can achieve distances in the hundreds of feet or more without having to replace antennas on any of your existing equipment, longer distances if you replace an antenna or two.
There are also other alternatives to using WiFi or network cable – like Network-over-Power, which will work well also.
Next you’ll probably want to download something like the excellent Yawcam software to get started and test whether your computer is going to be able to stream – if that’s what you are planning on doing (unfortunately you need Java installed on your computer for Yamcam but there are alternatives). And even if you are not streaming you can make sure the computer is going to display your webcam at the resolution that you want it to with something like Yawcam, even if you just are evaluating what works and what doesn’t it’s a good piece of software to start with.
So while Yawcam is great there are lots of other pieces of software around too, but these instructions should be similar for other software, or you may just want to set the whole thing up on Yawcam and then move on to something else once you are sure everything is working well.
For Yawcam, download and install it, once installed run it and go up to Window, and make sure the Preview check box is clicked. If nothing shows up you may have to go to Settings and then Detect Video Devices and select your webcam. Once your webcam is displaying in the preview window go back up to Settings and click the name of your webcam and then click Format Control to set your webcam to the maximum resolution and frame rate (if you are streaming) that you are going to want, and possibly go back and click Device Properties if you need to adjust lighting, contrast, color, and other miscellaneous settings. Usually these latter settings will be fine at default.
Also, if you took my advice from earlier in this post and set your computer via BIOS to automatically restart on a power failure you may want to also copy the Yawcam shortcut to the startup folder so that it will start when Windows does. On older systems this was easy to drag and drop in the Start menu, but on newer systems like Windows 10 you have to dig a little to find and place the shortcut. In Windows 10 it is usually under something like:
Or you may want to install Yawcam as a service. You can look under the Yawcam start menu folder to find the file Service_Readme.txt, which will explain about how to set it up as a service. Or you can just click to install it as a service. Either works but I prefer to just shuck the shortcut into the startup folder.
Then in Yawcam’s Settings go to the Startup options and make sure whatever method that you will use for uploading your webcam pictures is set to turn on when Yawcam loads. If you are planning on using the computer as a security camera or using it for other similar purposes you can go to Yawcam’s main screen and click View then “Hide at Startup”. This won’t hide it from someone who knows where to look but provides a little security.
Make sure your IP is a static IP too, otherwise you can select the “Detect every xx minutes” under Settings, Edit Settings, Connection. But if you are using just the IP address and port number (for testing or permanently as explained later) you may need to use something external as explained by Yawcam help on dynamic IP’s.
You may even find that after you have installed the webcam drivers, plugged it in, and loaded your webcam program your older computer may crash, or become pretty slow or just not display the preview from the camera. You of course can decrease the resolution to maybe make it work if this happens.
But in this case instead of decreasing the resolution you can use a little trick that just might work – turn off any preview function in your webcam program. This of course makes proper aiming harder but not impossible and might allow you to still upload maximum resolution webcam photos.
For aiming you can always knock down the resolution, get everything aimed correctly, then turn off preview, and increase the capture resolution to max again.
Some older drivers for older OS’s may not give you your webcam’s highest capable resolution either (also note that many times maximum webcam resolutions are shown as interpolated, which older drivers and computer may not give you access to).
Even if you don’t want to stream video but instead want to serve up high-resolution still photos as quickly as can be sent to your site – an older computer may not be able to handle this as well as you may want it to. Again, if it’s an outdoor webcam and there’s not a huge amount of action using a slower update will be fine. If you plan on just serving up an occasional interval capture or pull capture (a viewer visiting your site triggers a capture) then the speed and processing ability of the computer isn’t going to matter, though make sure it will handle those large resolution still captures anyway.
Streaming takes some computer power, especially if you are talking about older computers. You may have to knock down the resolution, or increase compression, or both – to make it work. Or you may find that you’ll have to either live with jerky video (which can be fine if what you are streaming doesn’t change a lot) or find a slightly better computer. Do make sure you have the newest drivers for your webcam also and updated any video formats the computer might be using for this, if you can.
See earlier in this post about possibly tweaking and slightly increasing an old computer’s processing power a bit. But if you have to do all of this likely the computer is not going to be able to serve up very fast streaming, if any at all, though it’s worth a test.
If you are going to also stream audio (Yawcam can’t do it but you can use other software or run an audio streaming program at the same time – like Broadwave Audio Streaming Server) and you’re already having trouble with video streaming then there likely is no way audio streaming is going to work in addition to the video streaming.
To test streaming with Yawcam is fairly easy, you can also use the following to test still images in preparation for FTP or HTTP pull or whatever method you are going to use.
On the main Yawcam window click “Enable” beside where is says ‘Stream’ and while you are at it click “Enable” for HTTP also (turn on FTP if you are going to eventually use it). Now go to Settings and then click Edit Settings and next click Connection. Your IP address should already be found by Yawcam, if not click “Get” beside where it says “IP Address”.
Now all you should need to do is click “What’s my URL?” and a browser window should open up. On this screen will be addresses for the public and internal network URL for both streaming as well as HTTP pull – pull (the word ‘pull’ is not used – it is just called ‘HTTP’) will grab the current photo from the webcam. The URL’s for the both external as well as internal network consists of the IP address and the port number.
The single image HTTP will only pull one image for each load of the page. For a page that updates every ten second append ‘update.html’ to the end of the URL consisting of the IP address and port.
Clicking the HTTP address will bring up a single still photo, clicking streaming of course brings up a live streaming video. Use your browser’s back button to try another IP. If everything works you can test your streaming for a bit, and then copy the URL’s and try it on other computers on your network as well as other devices. Additionally you can password-protect the stream (Settings, Edit Settings, Password).
If there are any problems go back to the previous step to the “Connection” dialog and look at the help that is shown by clicking “Configure Router?”. You can try enabling UPNP if your router is a modern one capable of it, or you may have to open or forward ports on your router. Beyond this is more than the scope of what I want to cover in this blog posting.
At this point you may want to leave streaming running on a device or computer for a bit to make sure everything is going to work okay, or test it occasionally by leaving it running for a while. If you are going to use FTP or HTTP pull then you might want to still leave the HTTP IP ready in a browser window on another device to occasionally check.
So now you have the basics. At this point you might want to just let the computer sit, maybe at the location where you are going to set it up permanently and make sure it is going to run problem-free on its own. How long? A day, days, whatever. In fact at any previous point you can let the computer sit and run if you are not sure about its ability to run on its own problem-free, like if you don’t want to put too much work into it until you are sure it is going to run fine long-term.
It’s going to have to run for long periods of time without intervention by you, and you want to be reasonably sure that this computer is going to work without any issues. Make sure nothing gets too hot, starts to make noise, or anything like that. The webcam shouldn’t get overly hot nor the WiFi adapter. Windows, your webcam software, drivers, nor anything else should be crashing or giving you errors.
You may have already positioned your webcam and computer where you want it to go, if not this might be the time to move it to its new home and allow it to run to check for any problems.
You want a place that is going to give a good view of whatever object, area, or the outside site that you want to display yet you want all the devices to be away from water, dust, shock, and heat, have access to your network or WiFi as well as stable electrical power. Make sure the computer as well as the webcam and USB adapter, keyboard, mouse, and power cord are away from anything that will knock into, pull at, bang into, etc and is secure as much as you can place it away from pests, rodents, and other things that might disturb it.
You can somewhat dust-proof a computer by adding filters on all the vents. Dryer sheets are good for light duty filtering, for heavier duty filtering you can use things like furnace filters cut to size, or light cloth. But for vents with fans behind them make sure you are not putting something too thick over the vent as the fan may over-heat or have a very shortened lifetime. In a dust or dirt-heavy environment there may be some things that you can do to further seal the computer while still providing ventilation with a little forethought. At the very least set up a schedule of dusting and cleaning of the computer and peripherals if the computer is going to be running under these conditions, or at least periodic inspection.
If you set options in the BIOS for the computer not to check for your mouse and keyboard (if those options are available) you might want to unplug either or both at this point, or later after some testing. I’ll also go into how to set up a remote access for it through your network a little later in this posting, so if the computer is running fine you shouldn’t need to have a keyboard or mouse plugged in but this is, of course, optional; I like to unplug both so there’s less things to keep track of and keep out-of-the-way. If you are using a monitor (flat or old-school CRT 😉 you might want to unplug it to save space also – at least once everything is working fine and perhaps after you have remote access set up. You don’t need remote access but it makes it easier to sit in the comfort of your living room and tweak any settings or check most computer problems without having to physically go to the computer. If it’s a security webcam in your living room it doesn’t matter as much, but if your webcam computer is mounted in the top of your garage or some location that’s less accessible it makes it easier for any checking, maintenance, resets, etc. And while the computer will run fine in the cold, if you start up something like an old-fashioned CRT after it has been in the cold for a long period of time it will rapidly warm up, possibly causing condensation, which in turn could damage it. You might find similar problems with the electronics of newer flat screen displays.
Of course one of the main factors to consider is to make sure that you have good and stable a connection to the Internet. If you have a network cable to the location you are all set in that aspect but WiFi can be problematic, especially with old adapters and with locations far from your router(s) or access point(s).
As I said before you may have to move around your computer and WiFi adapter to get a good signal, or try some of the other ways I mentioned earlier in this post for getting a better signal.
But you may just need an extension cord for the computer or a USB extension cable to get a longer USB cable for your WiFi device and in addition you can also use a longer USB extension cable to locate your webcam in a better place if it’s not practical to mount your camera in a certain way or site, or for both. A USB extension cable has a male end and a female end and come in various lengths. You can also buy a USB hub (powered or unpowered) and plug both the WiFi adapter and webcam into it if both devices are near similar locations, though some of these hubs don’t have very long cables either. In which case you can always get a hub AND and long USB extension cable. Alternately, and going along nicely with repurposing old computer equipment; you can save yourself a few bucks if you have an old USB hub lying around – even if you lost the power supply or the hub has a burned out port or two you can still possibly use it as a cheap (as in free) extension cord.
As an example – one of my webcams is located in an enclosed utility building which can get quite warm in the summer, especially at the level (about seven feet above the floor) where I wanted the webcam.
The computer itself needed to go as close to the floor as possible to stay below the rising heat in the building, but the locations that I wanted to webcam to have a view from was a small port seven feet above the floor. I found that the wireless adapter did not get a very good signal while plugged directly into the computer. A pair of USB extension cords allowed me to put the camera exactly where I wanted it, and the WiFi adapter at a higher location for a better signal, with the computer in an ideal place near the cooler floor.
My other webcam needed a very long cable to reach from the window (seen in the picture at right) to where the computer was sitting on a handy bench. Because the window was above a storage area that I didn’t want to reconfigure I used an old USB hub which originally was a powered one. Since I was only using it for one device it didn’t need to even be powered – it just acts as an extension cable of sorts.
The only issue you might want to consider is whether you need USB 2 and you are re-using an older model hub that is just USB 1. For streaming you may want to test this just to make sure it is going to be fast enough.
You also have to consider your electrical connection – you don’t want to be plugged into something where there’s a lot of power tools or other devices that are in use or may be plugged in that will cause a lot of surges or drop-outs. So one area you may not want to skimp on is getting a good surge suppressor that’s capable of absorbing high-powered fluctuations. The higher the number of joules it can absorb the better. Sure, it’s an old computer – but if you’ve went through the trouble of setting this all up and are running it 24/7 you might as might have fairly good protection for it (and sometimes you can get some good high joule surge equipment at discount stores). And if you change your mind about running a webcam computer you can always use the surge suppressor/line conditioner for other things. One thing to remember with surge suppressors also – they don’t last forever.
Keep an eye on everything for a bit if you are running the computer and webcam in a remote location – mice, rats, and maybe even chipmunks and squirrels and other vermin can be attracted to the sound, warmth, or plastic of the computer and cables and webcam, etc. In remote areas you can set traps nearby the computer and possibly near webcam and/or wireless adapter to make sure they are not disturbed.
I once had a spider problem on the webcam. The webcam must have been just a bit warmer than the ambient air around it that attracted a large spider that sat on the lens, slowly spinning a web. After moving the spider away several times and having it come back I eventually had to take it much, much farther away (!).
If you are running this system inside a house likely this won’t be a problem; in the garage or other building, cellar, attic or other less traveled location it could attract any number of things.
If you are running this system inside you may have a problem finding a place to stash the whole system, versus the smaller size of an IP or other security camera. But although once you do have the computer hidden somewhere the small webcam can be easier to hide than an IP webcam. Though also in addition to the size of the computer the sound of the fans can draw attention to the system. Some of the low profile computers are much smaller and also quieter, and work just as well for webcam computers. Make sure there is enough ventilation for wherever you may hide the unit.
Sometimes you can disguise a computer by building a plywood enclosure, putting it in a large Tupperware or Rubbermaid container (where you might write something on the container to further throw off anyone). Just make sure there is ventilation (you may have to be creating if you are ‘sealing’ it inside something, putting the system under or inside an enclosure or whatever you are doing with it). If you mount the computer in an attic, top of the garage, or near an uninsulated wall you may find that the computer is going to get way too hot. You can run the USB and power cables under insulation and other things to hide it and of course the webcam itself will have to be somehow hidden. Any number of methods to hide it can be used – from stashing it inside a cardboard packing box to boring a small hole in the side of the building you want it to view from and covering it with a piece of glass or plexiglass (or even a two-way mirror).
Mounting a webcam outside can get tricky as you need to thoroughly waterproof the camera but possibly also provide ventilation, even for a small webcam, especially in the Summer.
Alternately you can buy weatherproof cameras that you can mount outside and mate to your webcam system, some of which have very good low light abilities or LED emitters that allow it to see in the dark. You can connect a security camera either through a video capture USB adapter or through a video capture card (and for the purposes of thoroughness I will mention stand-alone security systems, some of which also connect to the Internet similar to IP cameras). Video capture cards can be expensive but many times they offer much higher frame rates, if needed. The video capture USB adapters are much cheaper, but usually have a lower capture resolution and speed. Again, you may have some of these (either cards or USB capture devices) sitting around in your parts piles, though some of the video capture USB adapters are very very cheap but still may meet your specs.
Going back to the webcam enclosure for a bit – if you don’t have a weatherproof camera or webcam there are many enclosures that you can buy, some are even heated. Running the USB cable through these enclosures and mounting a webcam for a computer inside may be issues to consider though, as you may compromise that weatherproof-ness if you are not careful. Alternately you can try fitting your webcam into one of the dummy camera housings and see if they work for you, some may be too small, some may be the wrong size and shape, and some may not be that waterproof without some extra waterproofing done to them. I’d suggest starting with one that has a battery-powered LED inside to make them look real (there are larger and more elaborate ones with motion sensors like this one or cheaper, smaller ones like this one), I mention perhaps getting one with an LED inside because then there should be some rudimentary effort that was put into it by the manufacturer to make the enclosure waterproof enough to keep the LED and battery dry. You can also use these inside if you want the webcam to be protected, or maybe more visible.
Or lastly you can build your own waterproof enclosure, using anything from wooden boxes sealed with caulk to Tupperware or Rubbermaid boxes sealed with sealant, to things like modified security light enclosures. Here’s an Instructables link for making a waterproof enclosure out of Tupperware, with a little modification this would work for a webcam quite well.
But again, as mentioned above – consider whether your webcam will get warm inside something like this; especially in the sun. A sun shade or shaded area as well as considering things like painting the Tupperware box should help some but you still may need a ventilation hole. Higher resolution, and possibly newer webcams may need ventilation, some may not – but an enclosure or exposure to direct sunlight may dramatically increase the need for ventilation, or shade.
For one of my webcams I may give the Rubbermaid or security light enclosure a try, and I will try to revisit this blog entry if so.
At this point you may have your computer, OS, and drivers all configured, your computer and camera positioned at its new home, connected to the Internet in one way or another and everything running well and functioning as desired.
If you are going to use your new webcam system only as a security monitor you may be able to skip this section as you could access your camera’s stream (or HTTP pull images) as shown under the above heading “(Testing) Streaming with Yawcam”. No external website needed. You can even password protect the stream (in Yawcam go to Settings, Edit Settings, and then Password). You can also edit the page which is displayed for both HTTP Pull and Streaming. To edit the pages for the HTTP Pull go to the below location on your computer and edit the index.html file for the single still frame page and update.html for the ten-second update rate page (you can also adjust the update rate in the HTML code):
To edit the streaming page go into Yawcam and click Settings, then Edit Settings, Stream, and finally Page Designer.
The Page Designer is simple and basic but you can create a more elaborate page by manually editing the source files, which you can find in (look for the read me file for an explanation of the various files):
Make sure you have either Streaming or HTTP (depending on which or if you are using both) enabled on the main window of Yawcam, if you plan on streaming. In case of a computer restart make sure under Setting, Edit Settings, and Startup that you have the proper item(s) enabled and see the above “Testing with Yawcam (or Other Software)” about making sure Yawcam starts with Windows and setting it up if you have a dynamic IP (you probably don’t or don’t need to even if you do have a dynamic IP address).
If you are going to run a weather webcam you also may not need to set up a website. If you only want to upload your images to something like Weather Underground you can set Yawcam up to FTP images directly to Weather Underground. Here’s the link to set it up and a little info about it from their wiki.
Otherwise you are going to need/want a website.
For those knowledgeable enough a consideration would be to run your own server and your website off that, likely on the computer running the webcam so everything is self-contained. But you may find it more trouble than it’s worth unless you know what you are doing, or it may not work properly without messing around with forwarding and opening ports on your router, and/or you may find that it technically is violating the terms of your usage of your broadband from whatever company you are getting service from. They may really frown on that if you start getting an amount of traffic. Even streaming from Yawcam may technically violate their terms. This of course is going to depend on your provider, and maybe how much traffic you get, and you will have to decide if it is worth it between those things and whether you want to go through the trouble of running your site off your own server. Especially with an older computer.
There are many other, probably easier and safer, ways to get server space and set up a website – it all depends on how much money you want to spend.
For those who are the thriftier among us there are free options. Yes, totally free. But there are going to be trade-offs; like slower server speeds, no technical support, no domain name, possibly ads (though not so much today), higher downtimes, lack of options, lower and limited allotted bandwidth and server space, limits on file sizes, etc. But if you can put up with or don’t mind the limitations this is the cheapest (as I said – free) way to go, and it might be a good way to dip your toe in the whole process if you’re not real familiar with how it all works.
Byethost and Freehostia are two great free hosts, with limitations of course. But each also allows you to move up to paid hosting if you wish. If you are going to use WordPress and want to go the free route you can always install it, either using the hosting company’s one-click install to install it to a free host or upload and install it manually, or use the free WordPress.org site instead.
Whether you are going the free route, or cheap hosting, or something a little better – if you don’t have a domain (or don’t get one free from your domain provider or if you want additional domains) Google Domains is a great way to get a top-level domain name for cheap. As of right now it is $12 per year with free privacy.
Of note – unless you are running a business where you want your contact info out there for others to find – you WANT privacy on your domain. Without it all of your contact info, including name, address, telephone, e-mail, are available to spammers. So if you are not using Google Domains then factor in the price of privacy if you are getting a domain name from another registrar, from your hosting company (which probably will charge you extra for it), or elsewhere. Likely it will be around $10 to $15 per domain. If you use Google Domains make sure you turn privacy on or select it when you are setting up your domain.
As to the entire process of setting up a website itself; well, that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post.
A quick mention here – if you want to upload your images directly to Weather Underground and only Weather Underground you can sign up there, and FTP your images directly into their site. Directions here. If you aren’t interested in uploading your images to Weather Underground then read on (you can also run a weather webcam site AND have Weather Underground grab the images from your site too – see same directions).
I always recommend using WordPress; usually most good hosting has some sort of one-click install for it but if you are familiar with setting up MYSQL databases and the syntax of servers you can download WordPress and install it yourself – though there’s usually not much benefit in manually installing it over one-click installs. You can host a beginning installation for free on WordPress.org instead if you want to give it a try first. There are limitations but it is a great way to get started.
Otherwise there are many platforms that you can use, or you can create your own pages in HTML, PHP, etc. There are a free editors if you don’t have any, including online ones and Open Source or freeware ones like Blue Griffon, as well as the commercial ones like the now-defunct Expression Web or Adobe Dreamweaver.
You can dissect the code used in the streaming and/or HTTP pull pages that are generated by Yawcam (as displayed in the descriptions above) and use this code, do near-streaming speed HTTP Pull, etc – I won’t go into the in’s and out’s of this right now . If using FTP just have Yawcam upload to a directory on your server and grab them off using whatever variation of a regular HTML source attribute:
For WordPress you would do the similar, inserting the code using the ‘Text’ tab in the WordPress editor:
I wish I could go into this deeper but this post is getting a tad bit long. So on to some miscellaneous things to wrap this up.
If you have disconnected the keyboard and mouse from your webcam computer, and maybe the monitor too, or if the webcam computer system is in a remote location – it’s good to use something like a remote control program.
A popular free program is Teamviewer. Teamviewer works just fine but a less-resource intensive piece of software is TightVNC or any of the VNC programs you may run across. Any of these of course allow you to access your webcam computer from any computer on your network, or any device (if you have the right program/app installed). You can usually access it remotely outside of your network, though sometimes you may need to tinker with your router.
Another thing a webcam computer is good for versus an IP camera – you can set up Yamcam to make as many time-stamped local saves of images as you have hard drive space for. While some IP cameras let you do this you have the option of a large amount of hard drive space when using a computer, and if you are using FTP you can have smaller intervals than the images you upload if needed. As well as saving lots of video from the motion detection option in Yamcam, saving stills while streaming video, etc.
Additionally, with enough hard drive space this webcam computer can double as a backup computer.
Desktops aren’t the only thing that can be used, you can also use laptops – and the nice thing is they usually already have a built-in webcam. Unfortunately you also want to consider the additional cooling needed for running a laptop for long periods of time, cooling fans for the laptop as well as the power supply. Not the best option, but in a pinch a laptop can be used. But laptops just aren’t made to run for long periods of time like desktops.
If you set up your webcam to upload to a hosted site there are many services that will let you know if your site goes down, which is a good thing, but you have to consider that it won’t tell you if your webcam computer has stopped uploading stills or streaming for some reason. So set up a schedule to periodically check your webcam (and site) and make sure it is uploading new images/streaming correctly.
Remember – it’s an old computer, and you’re doing things that it may not have been meant to do, and with something that’s likely had a fair lifetime of use already; so occasional checking is something to keep up on, at least for awhile.
You can also include a link to your webcam on the various sites that display webcam images and sites from around the world (unless of course you’re using it as a security camera). You’ll find some links to these sites, like EarthCam and Webcam Central, near the bottom of the homepage on my webcam page.
Ah, I hate wrapping this up so quickly but perhaps I will someday have to do a more in-depth post on setting up the actual website, server pull, etc.
But to finish up – if you have any questions please post a comment below.